A Little Bit Of Virtue Can Be A Dangerous Thing

Excerpt: Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist Papers

(Introductory Note:  After the U.S. Constitution was drafted and signed at the Philadelphia Convention on September 17, 1787, it had to be approved by ratifying conventions in nine of the original thirteen states in order to replace the Articles of Confederation that united those states at the time.  In order to help win support for the new Constitution, particularly in his home state of New York, Alexander Hamilton, along with John Jay and James Madison, wrote eighty-five letters to the public under the pseudonym Publius, publishing them in the newspapers of New York City from October 27, 1787 to August 16, 1788.  The letters explained and defended the Constitution, including the need for a stronger national government than the Confederation allowed.  In the following excerpt from Federalist No. 9, Alexander Hamilton draws an example from the ancient republics of Greece and Italy in order to illustrate the plight of a weak union of states.)


A firm Union will be of the utmost moment to the peace and liberty of the States as a barrier against domestic faction and insurrection.  It is impossible to read the history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy without feeling sensations of horror and disgust at the distractions with which they were continually agitated, and at the rapid succession of revolutions by which they were kept in a state of perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy.  If they exhibit occasional calms, these only serve as short-lived contrasts to the furious storms that are to succeed.  If now and then intervals of felicity open themselves to view, we behold them with a mixture of regret, arising from the reflection that the pleasing scenes before us are soon to be overwhelmed by the tempestuous waves of sedition and party rage.  If momentary rays of glory break forth from the gloom, while they dazzle us with a transient and fleeting brilliancy, they at the same time admonish us to lament that the vices of government should pervert the direction and tarnish the luster of those bright talents and exalted endowments for which the favored soils that produced them have been so justly celebrated.


The Federalist Papers: Hamilton - Madison - Jay, ed. Clinton Rossiter (New York:  NAL Penguin Inc., 1961), No. 9: Hamilton, “The Utility of the Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection,” pp. 71-2. 


There is a saying, that a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing...perhaps the same can be said of virtue.  In the 9th essay of The Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton draws a picture of a sometimes-peaceful, sometimes-just state to convey his warning that an only-occasionally good political order is no good at all.  His insight points to an even further idea, that virtue without consistency can be worse than its absence altogether.

Hamilton offers three different images of passing oases within the poorly governed republics of ancient Greece and Italy, acknowledging that the good moments may be quite good.  In fact he imagines increasingly tempting visions: First, he asks us to consider the “occasional calms” that might come upon such states, and free us for a while from the chaos of anarchy or the stranglehold of tyranny.   Second, he describes the reprieves as “intervals of felicity,” so that in addition to peace, there is happiness as well.  Third, he considers moments that seem capable of transporting us to the heights of joy:  “rays of glory break forth from the gloom.”  But in each case, there is a cloud over the experience that makes it impossible to truly enjoy those moments:  the brief periods of peace, happiness, and even joy “only serve” to highlight for us, make us “regret,” and “admonish us to lament” how wonderful things might have been, yet how bad things really are.  Hamilton envisions that even the most exalted moment, if it arises unpredictably only to predictably vanish back into misery, will be experienced primarily as a harbinger, emphasizing for us the sadness of what is to come.

Although on the surface Hamilton seems to be telling us how we would experience such ephemeral joys, he is actually teaching us how we should experience them.  Certainly it is a very wise citizen who would not be swept away in the first utopian moments that by chance arise in the midst of an oppressive regime.  It would take quite a strength of mind to hold back the sense of euphoria, and instead remind oneself that “the pleasing scenes before us” are not anchored to any stable source, and are sure to pass—probably sooner rather than later—back into the nightmare from which they arose.  Consider how a period of relative press freedom allowed by a fundamentally dictatorial regime may lead journalists to feel safe enough to openly criticize the government, only to find themselves imprisoned or worse during the next crackdown.  Perhaps after being rudely awakened once or twice, one might become alert to the danger of enticing political moments that are ungrounded and therefore ultimately offer only false promises.  One might eventually learn that the cost of falling for such illusions can be severe, since they leave you particularly vulnerable and unprepared for what is to follow.  Of course Hamilton was hoping that his readers would be able to learn this lesson by reflecting upon his arguments about the necessary foundations for a good time to support the Constitution of the United States, without the rude awakening that he was sure the Confederation would eventually bring, when it might be too late to establish “a more perfect Union.”1

Looking beyond the political example, it becomes apparent that Hamilton’s wisdom applies to many other cases, perhaps to any human virtue at all.  When a positive experience is fleeting and unstable, and the default mode involves deeply disturbing negative experiences, experiences that rightly evoke “horror and disgust,” then one would do well to heed Hamilton’s warning and be wary, especially during the tempting interludes of joy.  Shakespeare has gone so far, on the question of love, perhaps the most valuable of all human goods, to declare that “Love is not love” without constancy, requiring true love to be so grounded that it remain the same even “when it alteration finds” in the one who is loved, or when circumstances change:  “it is an ever-fixed mark / That looks on tempests and is never shaken.”2  What status would Shakespeare, or Hamilton, give to that which claims to be love, but is actually an evanescent emotion that brilliantly rises up against background shades of indifference, callousness, even hatred...only to sink back into the mire?  Though feelings of love, no matter how fleeting, usually have some meaningful source, and are not as accidental as the moments of political good order that Hamilton describes, still a lack of consistency can be similarly dangerous in each case.  When the occasional fondness and caring of a fundamentally abusive person is taken for love, the consequences can be devastating--for as everyone knows, a trusted companion (be it a lover, friend, or family member) with whom one is vulnerable can hurt one much more deeply than a known enemy.

The sense in which the bad outweighs the good in such cases is not a matter of a simple calculation of the number or degree of good moments versus bad ones.   If it were, a glorious moment within a terrible situation would always be a net gain, instead of a misleading and dangerous temptation to forget the bad moments.  Hamilton urges us to reject the illusion that an ungrounded good moment creates, and experience it instead primarily as a painful reminder of how rare the good moments actually are.  For, despite the goodness that can be contained within an isolated moment, it is not clear whether a virtue can exist at all, or any good be an overall good to us, without at least some measure of consistency.

Of course no sane, much less wise, view would require absolute stability and constancy from human virtue.  Hamilton’s argument is based on the belief that the consistency of a well-governed state is the ultimate sign of a wisely drafted Constitution.  But there could be no ideal Constitution or perfectly-grounded individual to guarantee absolutely consistent virtue.  And just as impossible is the state or individual so absolutely evil and fully corrupt to its core that “virtue” appears only sporadically and randomly within a sea of vice.  But when faced in everyday life with any of the myriad, complex points between these two extremes, Hamilton’s insight encourages us to examine the underlying, foundational causes at work in order to better understand the surprising (and sometimes dangerous) ways in which virtue may be present—yet absent as well.


1  U.S. Constitution, Preamble. 

2  William Shakespeare, Sonnet CXVI.


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Posted: March 2007

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